Building a Legend: History of Fire Fighter – America’s Fireboat
It’s safe to say that New York Harbor in the 1930s was a much different place than it is today. Ringed on all edges by cargo piers, bulk goods terminals, and shipyards instead of parks and high-priced condominiums, the entire harbor was alive as ships of every description plied their trades. Pier fires, ship collisions, and other maritime mishaps were an all too routine occurrence across the 267-mile waterfront during its history, and by 1937 the New York City Fire Department was operating a fleet of nine fireboats dispersed across the City to protect the expansive harbor. Though the FDNY fleet was more than capable of handling any peacetime fire with a combined 75,000 gallon-per-minute pumping capacity, the looming war in Europe and likelihood that New York would once again be a major supply port for friendly nations highlighted, the need for a modern and more powerful fireboat to protect the harbor.
Seizing the opportunity to fuse two of his interests into one project, noted naval architect William Francis Gibbs, approached Mayor Fiorello La Guardia with an ambitious design proposal for a revolutionary fireboat with an unrivaled pumping capacity and the first diesel-electric propulsion system ever fitted to a FDNY fireboat.
Seeing the potential of the vessel and eager to stimulate the New York City economy during the waning years of the Great Depression, Mayor La Guardia eagerly approved Gibbs’ proposal and in the fall of 1937 the keel of Hull #856 was laid at United Shipyards on Staten Island. Built of riveted steel and measuring 134 feet long with a 32-foot beam housing a pair of General Motors 1500hp 16-cylinder 3968 CID Winton Diesel Engines, the vessel took shape on the ways was by far the world’s most powerful fireboat; with four DeLaval two-stage centrifugal fire pumps driven by four Westinghouse Marine DC 600hp motors capable of delivering up to 20,000 gallons per minute of water to the nine topside fire monitors and hose manifolds. Construction wrapped up on Hull #856 in the late summer of 1938 and the vessel was formally christened as the Fire Fighter by Miss Eleanore Grace Flanagan, the daughter of a fireboat officer, on August 28, 1938 and slid down the ways into Newark Bay. Heralded as a utilitarian vessel by Mayor La Guardia, the name Fire Fighter was given her name honor the men of the FDNY, and not a mayor of New York City as was the tradition with previous FDNY fireboats.
Spending much of her first month of operation engaged in extensive training to familiarize her crews with her substantial capabilities, Fire Fighter officially entered FDNY service at 0900hrs on November 16, 1938 with Engine 57 at Pier 1 in the Battery. Not having to wait long before being called to duty, on November 19th, Fire Fighter responded to her first emergency when she secured a runaway oil barge drifting down the Hudson River. Dispatched to her first working vessel fire on January 23, 1939, Fire Fighter spent over 13 hours fighting the well-fueled and stubborn fire aboard the British-flagged freighter SS Silver Ash at the 57th Street Pier in Brooklyn.
Victorious over her first fire, Fire Fighter resumed her station at Manhattan’s southern tip where she spent the balance of the next year guarding harbor traffic. The exception to this duty was her deployment to the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows, where she became something of a celebrity among the people of New York as she served as both a fire protection asset and a heavily-visited exhibit of her own revolutionary design and capabilities.
The light atmosphere was not to be long-lived however, as less than a month after leaving her fair duty the Second World War began in Europe, bringing with it the grim reasoning behind the Fighter’s powerful firefighting capability. Though the United States would remain officially neutral for the next two years, New York Harbor was soon busy with cargo ships carrying supplies of all kinds to Europe, and along the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island shorelines long-dormant shipyards were once again humming with activity as the United States ramped up the production of warships. Keeping an ever watchful eye over the nonstop activity, Fire Fighter and her marine division comrades soon found themselves protecting a major war material supply port which was now lying on the front lines in the Battle of the Atlantic.